"I'm a mathsphysicsgeography teacher not a bloody social worker." Strange that one still hears that kind of outburst, especially in secondary schools, when a subject specialist is asked to take an interest in a pupil's welfare. Doubly strange when one remembers that almost every teacher has some direct pastoral responsibility for a tutor group.
Incomprehensible when even the newest trainee is aware of the negative impact that problems in a pupil's social situation can have on how much academic progress he makes.
Part of the problem stems from the perception that form tutoring is often defined as an admin task - registers and lists, uniform checks, passing on messages - and that it's a second-rate diversion from the teacher's academic responsibilities. That is short-sighted. Subject teachers need the overview that form teachers have of their pupils, and form teachers need a steady flow of information about academic performance and behaviour.
Communication is the key, and not just at report-writing time.
Form tutors can do a lot to help their groups improve their academic performance. A simple question: "What's the most interesting thing you've learned this week?' can help a pupil contextualise and consolidate what he's getting out of school.
Here are some ideas for positive, useful, supportive activities.
* Prepare a nine-column time-mapping grid for each pupil. Use paper or a spreadsheet. Head the first column "Activity", the next seven as days of the week, and the ninth "Total hours".
* Label the rows with the names of pupil activities - school, paid work, sleep, eating, household tasks, shopping, sport. Don't include homework or study time. Ask pupils to suggest labels and leave spare rows for anything you haven't covered.
* Ask them to complete the grid at the end of each day, recording the time spent on each activity.
(Do this over a week - if they try to do it from memory in one session their figures will reflect fantasy rather than reality.)
* Add the columns and enter totals in the box on the right.
* Add the numbers in the "Total Hours" column.
* Subtract the total from 168, the number of hours in a week. That figure represents the time they have available for study. The grid will show where their time is going, which may come as a surprise to them.
Then ask pupils to identify the best times for out-of-school study. If those times don't match their homework timetables, how can they adjust their commitments?
Schools have different recommendations for time spent on homework so work within those guidelines.
There may also be recommendations about the hours that pupils should spend in paid employment - build that in to your discussions.
KEEP A PERSONAL SCHEDULE
Using the information from the time-mapping exercise, encourage pupils to draw up schedules for their schoolwork. Schedules are most helpful when they are flexible otherwise pupils will fail to keep to them and become discouraged. If they are seen as prompts, they can be altered as circumstances and demands change. To make this work, three schedules are recommended.
One should be long-term and note the key periods for the whole school year - dates and times of exams, parents' evenings, coursework deadlines - and could be reviewed monthly.
They will need a weekly schedule, prepared at the weekend, to give an overview of pupils' commitments for the next seven days, including everything not covered in the school timetable - details of what homework is due and when, coursework deadlines, meetings, and out-of-school and leisure commitments.
Finally, a daily schedule. This could be a "to do" list prepared the night before, ticking off items once completed can be motivating.
Emphasise that the weekly and daily schedules can be changed. If a pupil has a surprise opportunity to do something interesting or useful, or her netball team unexpectedly makes the final, then she can trade blocks of time. Do what was unplanned but rearrange the schedule to ensure that study time isn't lost.
Even if scheduling doesn't work perfectly, trying it at least shows pupils that personal organisation has some place in their lives.
LEARN NEW THINGS EVERY DAY
The form tutor can and should put learning at the centre of the pupil's school experience. Talking and thinking about it and making it the focus of formal and informal conversations will help keep learning in the foreground and build good habits. Try some of these activities:
* ask pupils to learn a new word every day: choose pupils at random at morning registration and get them to include their new word in a sentence
* focus on the news: talking about the footie is fine if it encourages good talk, but ask pupils for an account of other items that have caught their attention
* encourage culture: all your pupils watch films and TV, listen to music, read magazines - save a registration slot for a two-minute account of and opinions about a current topic
* explanations of tricky subjects: if something difficult to grasp has cropped up, ask those who've grasped it to explain it to those who haven't.
Peers make excellent teachers
* problem-solving and lateral thinking: set a problem in the morning and take the answers at afternoon registration
* brain gym: use some exercises as a warm-up for the day's schoolwork
* gather material for the BBC's Voices project: focus on language and how different age groups use it. Have native speakers teach everyone to say "hello" and "goodbye" in their language.
THREE OF A KIND
Remember all the theory you studied in college last year about learning styles and different kinds of intelligence? Dig out your notes and share them with your class. Can they work out whether they learn in a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic way, or do they use a mix of all three? Follow through by making practical suggestions on how their new knowledge can help them study more effectively.
* show them how to mind map and to use colour in note-making
* encourage them to make sketches and diagrams to pin down their understanding
* make visualising legitimate - a drawing of a character from a novel can generate as much insight and understanding as a set of written notes.
* encourage them to pair up with another auditory learner to talk through new ideas
* suggest that they can make notes by recording them on tape (or on their iPod)
* explain mnemonics and acrostics, and show how effective they can be when they fuse rhythm, rhyme or alliteration.
* make notes on separate cards - they can move them around to make connections, to see how things fit together
* make notes on big sheets of paper, with big pens - lots of physical activity involved
* pair up with another kinaesthetic learner and rule play the scenario they're trying to understand.